Typhoon Haiyan (referred to in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda) has caused tremendous displacement for hundreds of thousands of people in the Philippines, particularly for those living in the Eastern Visayas region. Early estimates rank it among the most destructive natural disasters in the last generation. In many ways, the images take one back to the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. In the same way that Hurricane Katrina, rightly or wrongly, destroyed the Bush presidency, the same appears to be true for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III who is doing a pathetic job, for lack of a better word, managing the situation. At least 10,000 people are dead in the city of Tacloban and that number is expected to rise in the surrounding regions. Hundreds of thousands are homeless and hungry. Currently, there is violence in the streets as locals are desperate to secure food and basic necessities. Local government units are overwhelmed with the sheer nature of the destruction.
The scale of this tragedy reaches deep into many American communities. On a personal note, my wife is Filipino and grew up in the Tacloban-Samar region–the hardest hit by the typhoon. Like many Filipinos, my wife was recruited by an agency through a highly competitive process to this country to work as a teacher in an underserved community. Although some have classified the recruitment process as taking jobs from Americans this could not be further from the truth. In order for a job to be accepted by a foreigner, the potential employer has to prove that they could not fill the position. This is the reason the majority of Filipino contract workers are in the teaching and healthcare fields. Our country desperately needs highly skilled and qualified people in these fields, particularly those willing to work in underserved and predominately minority communities. Many such teachers ended up teaching with the Houston Independent School District in Houston, Texas and with Prince George’s County School District in Maryland. The Houston Independent School District includes a number of schools that are primarily African American. Prince George’s County School District is primarily African American.
A fact unknown by many Americans is the exorbitant cost incurred by contract workers to come to the United States, a fact made even more difficult because of the disparity of the Philippine peso to American dollar exchange rate. Individuals often have to pool together resources just to send one person to the United States. Many spend their entire life savings and that of other family members to accept a contract that does not promise them anything but a job. Once they arrive in the United States they face numerous obstacles. As noted earlier they are placed in the most underserved communities where they have to adapt to conditions much different than what they faced in their home country. They also have to endure a culture much more critical of professionals than their own country where teachers and health care providers are revered and highly respected. Filipinos face many of the same stereotypes faced by African Americans and Latinos, yet these and other stereotypes are often held against them by other minority groups. Because of their immigration status and the fate of their families relying on their income, they are often unable to defend themselves at the places of them employment.
And yet, through all these challenges most of them have remained and excelled. Most eventually bring their families to the United States at a great financial cost, particularly if they lose their jobs before they receive their green card. (it took my wife 8 years to get hers) While programs like Teach For America that often send unprepared college graduates into underserved communities are lauded as successes with underserved communities, the programs that recruit the most experienced and seasoned teachers in the Philippines have met push back from our leaders and institutions. The same is true for the thousands of Filipino health care workers in America’s hospitals, where they provide excellent care for communities many Americans do not want to work in. Since most Filipinos speak English, there is also little to no language barrier.
For those who still say that the tragedy in the Philippines does not reach beyond that country, I draw your attention to the fact that 9.5 million Filipino citizens reside outside the Philippines, roughly 10 percent of that country’s population. Of that number approximately 3 million reside in the United States. Many Filipinos are working in our communities, serving our kids and our elderly. It is not an easy road for them. Not only do they serve and work in our communities but most are caring for their families in the Philippines. Indeed, roughly ten percent of the Filipino GDP comes from Filipino remittances made by Filipino workers across the world. This is where the effects of the typhoon reach beyond the Philippines. Because of their contributions to our communities by educating our children and caring for our elderly and sick, not to mention taking care of their families in the United States and back in the Philippines, this recent tragedy begs for us to step up to help. It is not only an issue of humanity but also of giving back to those who have been willing to serve our communities when many others have not.
I urge Americans to step up and help a community that truly needs our help.
By Dr. Carey H. Latimore IV is an Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of History at Trinity University